On Friday, the Government announced that it was forming an Independent Commission to review the Freedom of Information legislation and its implementation. The announcement can be found here and it claims that the Government fully supports the Freedom of Information Act, but suggests that after more than a decade of us, it is time for a review. One would hope that any review would consider if a given law is sufficient and adequate, as well as if it goes too far. However the indications are that this will not be a thorough review. The announcement explains:
“The Commission will review the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (‘the Act’) to consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection, and whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice. The Commission may also consider the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, and the burden of the Act on public authorities, and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information.”
It would be surprising if any Commission could possibly hope to represent all concerns and interests in the pursuit of this objective. However it is clearly vital that as far as possible those involved should include the span of agencies affected by calls for information as well as the voices of some of those who regularly or occasionally make FOI requests. The public bodies which are involved in responding to requests include Central and Local Government, The Police, The NHS and the BBC. The people and organisations which make FOI requests are broad and extend to various media agencies, groups such as 38 degrees and Liberty as well as people or groups that campaign on issues such as CSE, religious freedom and political change. For reasons best known to the Government they have limited the size of the Committee to 5 people. Whilst it would be unusual for any Government to allow a Commission such as this to be dominated by those who are outside their world, it is inconceivable that all of the members could be drawn from the world of Westminster Politics. However the Government which according to this announcement is “committed to being the most transparent government in the world. To deliver that goal we are opening up government to citizens by making it easier to access information and increase the volume available, with a record 20,000 datasets now on data.gov.uk while protecting a private space for frank advice. We are strengthening accountability and making public services work better for people….. We are proud of these achievements and are committed to going further. Our next Open Government National Action Plan will develop an offer on transparency that further strengthens this government’s commitment to open government.” has decided that the Committee will comprise of its Chair, Lord Burns who is a career Whitehall civil servant with experience of the world of business at a senior level and the Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Howard of Lympne, Lord Carlile of Berriew and Dame Patricia Hodgson. All five are members of the House of Lords, Straw, Howard and Carlile were previously MPs representing Labour, Conservative and the Lib Dems. The final member of the group, Dame Hodgson was a BBC journalist but in terms of her career since 2000 when the Act was introduced she was Chief Executive of the Independent Television Commission and led the organisation into its existence as OFCOM where she is now Deputy Chair.
Jack Straw was part of the Blair Government which introduced the FOI legislation, but he and Blair now have widely known views about their legislation which compares to repentant smokers who won’t have the weed in their presence. To counter this obvious bias, Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to which this group is accountable claims that even if it argues for a reduction in FOI rights, that Parliament will not give way due to the more progressive views in the House of Commons. On that basis why do we need such a narrow, Westminster establishment Committee in the first place?. After all neither the Lords nor MPs are on the front line of FOI requests, unlike Chief Constables, Council and NHS CEOs. What wisdom can these 5 bring to bear that is not already available in the Commons or Lords which would be involved in any review of this legislation. It is clear that this group of ‘great and good’ are a very poor fit for a Committee to thoroughly review FOI processes.